TOPICS > Economy

New ‘New Deal’ May Help Boost the Arts

May 13, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In partnership with KQED in San Francisco, NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the prospect for a new "New Deal" for the arts amid the economic downturn.

JIM LEHRER: Now the prospect for a new New Deal for the arts. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story. His report was done in partnership with the arts television program “Spark” produced by KQED-San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: The Porchlight Theatre in Marin County, California, is doing what a lot of arts groups across the country are: trying to raise money and having a hard time in the bad economy.

AUCTION PRESENTER: Porchlight will come to your porch for a minimum bid of $1,000. We can even go lower, if you’d like.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tickets and an auction at this fundraiser brought in less than $1,500, which will only help a little.

AUCTION PRESENTER: Knee britches, red waistcoats…

SPENCER MICHELS: Already, a school theater program has been cut and future performances are in jeopardy.

Nationwide, 129,000 artists are out of work, more than double a year ago, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a familiar picture, especially pronounced in locales like the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are a lot of artists.

Modern murals line an alley in the city’s Mission District, but at least one painter here says he won’t be creating any more. It’s too expensive.

SIRRON NORRIS, Painter: This stuff costs money, because I’m not getting paid for it. It’s out here for the community to see it. This is not something that I can afford to do anymore.

'New Deal' for arts programs

SPENCER MICHELS: Painter Sirron Norris cannot afford to paint murals for free because the economic downturn means he's had to turn away from fine art that he used to sell to high-paid, high-tech entrepreneurs.

SIRRON NORRIS: It was a lot easier to have a show in a gallery and then, at the end of that show, sell a number of paintings to support yourself.

SPENCER MICHELS: So at that time people were willing to spend money on art?

SIRRON NORRIS: People were willing to spend money, yes, on paintings, which is saying a lot, because that's not the situation anymore. Business has definitely slowed down, and I'm not doing as much as I used to.

CARLA BLANK, Writer and Director: Actually, that one I think you should come downstage on, because you're really asking a question of the audience.

SPENCER MICHELS: The tough times have disturbed Oakland-based director Carla Blank, who is working on an upcoming show with performance artist Boadiba.

Blank, a director and writer, says the economic situation has gotten so bad that she proposed in a column in the San Francisco Chronicle a 21st-century version of New Deal arts programs to help stimulate the economy.

CARLA BLANK: Along with the people who are brushing the paint on to a canvas comes a whole industry of people who own the paint stores, comes people who are the technicians, and every other kind of possible technology that would be involved in making art.

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Painters, too, contribute their bit to making the works program a real and permanent accomplishment.

SPENCER MICHELS: Blank uses as her model the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt put thousands of out-of-work artists back to work painting, writing, performing under the aegis of several federal agencies, like the Works Progress Administration, the WPA. Murals were a favorite genre, and thousands of them were created across the country.

Seventy-five years later, New Deal art is still ubiquitous. In places like Coit Tower in San Francisco, you can find evidence of 1930s-era, government-sponsored art.

The fresco panels, done by more than 20 artists, depict scenes from the Depression, some of everyday life and work, some sympathetic to radical movements of the day. One painted scene even had a headline about foreclosures.

In the '30s, conservatives tried to censor the murals as pro-communist, but they survive today, attracting tourists and art students.

Near San Francisco's Pacific Ocean Beach, a stunning example of New Deal arts, not so political, graces the Beach Chalet Restaurant, a former veterans club. Thousands of such projects abound in schools and public buildings, many largely undiscovered by the public.

Gray Brechin, who directs the Living New Deal Project at the University of California at Berkeley, is trying to catalogue the thousands of buildings, roads, trails, and art projects that crowd the California landscape to this day.

GRAY BRECHIN, Living New Deal Project: The 1930s was one of the most creative periods in American cultural life, largely because the government, through the WPA and various other programs, patronized all of the arts. There's never been another period quite like that. And it's produced an enormous artistic legacy of which the murals in the Rincon Annex Post Office are just one, but among the greatest.

Great civilizations support art

SPENCER MICHELS: The former Rincon Post Office in San Francisco has become an upscale retail and residential center, but the 28 New Deal murals in the lobby by artist Anton Refregier depicting California history were saved and remain on view, some more pastoral scenes, others not.

He seemed to be a little bit fond of violence, huh?

GRAY BRECHIN: Well, yes, and that got him into a lot of trouble, because this is not the kind of thing that people were used to seeing in post offices.

This is probably an arsonist up here who's being hanged. And you can see the city actually burning in the background there, but you also see the masked men here who are holding this kangaroo court.

Unlike so much of the public art up to that time, he didn't show it as one, long, triumphal march. He shows it, in fact, as a series of conflicts between races and classes that at times become very violent.

But, in fact, it's closer to reality than much of the public art that people were used to. And so, of course, it became extremely controversial. There's always been a deep suspicion of the arts as somehow, well, seductive, useless, erotic, and possibly revolutionary.

SPENCER MICHELS: But a return to government-supported art programs is what Carla Blank and her husband, writer Ishmael Reed, would like to see. They contend that great civilizations have always supported artists.

ISHMAEL REED, Writer: And when you look at Egypt, you look at Rome, you look at, you know, antiquity or the great African art that influenced modern art, we remember that. I mean, people think about Aaron Copland. His music is known all over the world. They think about Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, people like that, so...

SPENCER MICHELS: And they were all supported by the federal government?

ISHMAEL REED: Absolutely. A lot of them were. Aaron Copland, yes, yes. A lot of them were, yes.

New ideas for 'new deal'

SPENCER MICHELS: But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the Roosevelt years. Economics writer Amity Shlaes is author of "The Forgotten Man," which argues the New Deal achieved very little.

AMITY SHLAES, Council on Foreign Relations: It created many, many jobs, but not enough to bring us to levels of employment to which we were otherwise accustomed.

SPENCER MICHELS: The quality of federally supported artwork from the '30s, Shlaes contends, varied greatly, and it could have been done with private money.

AMITY SHLAES: This work was also, one, propaganda for the government for which they were working, definitely. It's not really the government's business, art, is it? We get into it from time to time. We have the NEH. We have the NEA. They're wonderful, but the private sector has a big role, too, and historically in the United States that's been an important role.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even some admirers of the large fresco murals funded by the federal government in the '30s say they may not be appropriate for a new New Deal.

Sirron Norris, the artist who gave up fine art and uses a technique he calls "cartoon literalism," says times have changed.

SIRRON NORRIS: When you create a fresco, you need a large group of people to do that. Nowadays, we don't really have -- we're not really pumping out frescos anymore, so big, large-scale mural projects can technically be done by one person. So we need to kind of put that in perspective when we're trying to figure out how to use money from the government to support artists.

Some artists become teachers

SPENCER MICHELS: Norris was trained as a commercial artist, a skill he is using once again to create art for a Fox TV animated pilot.

SIRRON NORRIS: We have a little bit more experience now. And, you know, I'll admit, like I said last time, this is the first time that I've ever taught this to anyone.

SPENCER MICHELS: He is also teaching computer art to young people at a Bay Area video school. That's the kind of thing the federal government ought to be supporting in these tough times, he says.

SIRRON NORRIS: Now there's a lot of people out of work that have amazing abilities and amazing things to offer. And I think that, if we can snag these people up, and, you know, create this model, and have them all start teaching, you know, you never know what could happen from it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Obama administration did include $50 million for the arts in the stimulus package, despite some objections from Congress.

Still, the talk among artists about a revival of grand-scale funding for the arts has renewed interest in New Deal art that was and still is a part of the nation's landscape.